This is the thirteenth chapter in Forest of Flames and the sixth in part two, Forest.
Ani's screams came first. It took only seconds before Sirona stormed outside, followed closely by Tammuz and his companion. Without hesitation the woman ran to Jarilo, ignoring Nergal completely.
But he also didn't make any attempt to attack her - on the contrary: he stood up, slowly, and even made room for her.
Sirona loosened the vines around Jarilo's neck, her fingers ran over his body in panic. Don't say it, Iris pleaded silently. Don't let it be true. But of course that couldn't stop Sirona. She whispered something Iris didn't understand at this distance, but she knew exactly what the woman was saying. Then Sirona raised her head, her gaze fixed upon Nergal, and her voice full of anger. "He is dead," she snarled at him. "You killed him!"
Nergal didn't reply. Rather, he stared at her - and Jarilo - as if he himself couldn't believe what had just happened.
Frustrated, Sirona turned away from him, and instead looked at Tammuz. "Get Damara," she told him. "As quickly as possible."
Her husband nodded and swung himself on the back of his orangutan companion, who started climbing the nearest tree within seconds.
"Go into the house," Sirona told Ani, and the girl immediately followed her instructions. Karzelek had buried his head in Geb's massive back, and Sedna -
Sedna was nowhere to be seen.
"Where is Sedna?", Iris asked Geb.
He shrugged tiredly. "She'll be fine."
Iris knew exactly what he wanted to tell her: "Don't leave me alone in this chaos." So she stayed where she was, and waited in an oppressive silence for the arrival of the chief.
Damara appeared with a retinue of four Elmen and their companions; warriors and guards, Iris presumed. Damara's cat was also there, so Shimmer moved uneasily into the background. The woman crossed the meadow with her gaze that finally rested on Iris. I'm the only one Damara knows here, she realized. Just great.
"Iris," the woman said with an undertone that made Iris afraid. It was a kind of "Do what I say, or my companion eats you alive." "Tell me what happened."
Iris nodded in an attempt to sort her thoughts and squinted over to Nergal. Should she defend him or blame him? They needed him to talk to Fuocith, and yet he had just killed someone. But what if had been the Shadow in him?
She sighed. No, they needed him alive.
"Ani wanted to heal Nergal," she said. "She touched him and that made Jarilo angry, so he attacked Nergal."
Damara looked at the Fire Elm skeptically. "He only defended himself?"
"Well, no - not really. They provoked each other."
"I don't know what happened," Nergal muttered beside them. "I didn't have the Shadow under control."
Sirona scoffed. "As if you didn't want to kill him!"
"Trust me, I want to kill a lot of people. But that doesn't mean I'm going to."
Geb's voice cut through the turmoil. "Calm down! That doesn't help."
The Elmen around him went silent. Geb was right: they weren't allowed to provoke Nergal again. Or anyone...
Geb exhaled in relief. "And now?", he asked. "What will happen to us?"
"We only kill to survive," Damara said. "And we don't torment without reason."
"Am I not reason enough?" Nergal replied bitterly. "Jarilo was pretty sure of that."
Damara frowned, her head resting on a fist. "You killed someone. Someone like Jarilo. Such a thing is punished severely, but not now. The council will have to decide. Until then, you are lucky - you will remain in the tribe."
"Not with us," Sirona said. "I refuse to let him live here."
"Of course - that is why the others are here." Damara looked at the Elmen who had accompanied her. "Take him and lock him away. So that he cannot cause any problems."
Nergal didn't resist, when the Elmen seized him and took him with them. Iris knew she should be glad to see Nergal in the exact situation he had put them in weeks before, but the shock was still too deep. None of them could have guessed what had just happened. "What about us?", she asked instead.
"You didn't do anything wrong," Damara thought. "So you'll stay with Sirona if she agrees."
The healer refused. "I won't let you into my house. Not after all of this."
"Understandable - but where then?"
"To the Impures," Geb suggested. "We slept there at the Fire Tribe as well."
Well said, Iris thought, but also remembered Geb's assumption he had expressed around Kairos: That the Forest Tribe certainly treated his Impures well.
Damara and Sirona exchanged a look.
"Why not?", Damara said at last. "It's not like we have no room."
Damara hadn't lied. The hut to which they were brought was not very big - but completely empty.
"Yes, so..." Tammuz, who accompanied them, scratched his head and resembled his companion uncommonly. "We have no Impures so deep in the heart of the forest. The hut here still exists, just in case."
Iris looked around. The building was decorated, though sparse. But it was clean and tidy and not messy at all. Only one layer of dust lay on the furniture, not older than a month. "But if you have no Impures..."
Tammuz nodded. "Don't ask me. No one in the tribe knows who regularly comes here and takes care of the hut. Well, lately, no one seemed to be here, but it wasn't long ago that this place was cleaned every week. Maybe you'll figure something out." He scratched his head again, then left the friends alone.
The night came without a sign of the mysterious person. And without a sign of Sedna.
"She should have been here long ago," Geb said once more. "She even missed dinner!"
"They'll tell her where we are," Iris replied. Geb knew, of course, that she was worried too. Even if she would never admit it. "I'll go out again."
This too was something she didn't need an answer to. For Geb, it was no longer a secret that she met Caw at night. But perhaps they needed such banalities after that day.
Caw was waiting at their usual meeting place, the branch from the first night. He grimaced when he saw Iris. Certainly, her gaze made all too clear how she was feeling. "What happened?"
She allowed him to put an arm around her shoulders. "Nergal killed Jarilo. With Shadow magic. And now Damara is holding him prisoner and thinking of a punishment for him."
"But that's good, isn't it? I thought you couldn't stand him anyway."
"It feels strange," she confessed. "I don't like him, but I've known him for a week or two now. And he wasn't really... evil, you know? He really tried to improve."
"If you say so." Caw didn't sound convinced. "But what do you want to do? Help him escape?"
"No thanks." That would only make things worse. "I would at least want to talk to him. Make sure he isn't..."
"More Shadow than Fire Elm?"
"Exactly." She stared into the treetops, towards Damara's palace. Luckily, Jarilo had told them where the prison was. "Will you help me?"
"Is it dangerous?"
She smirked. "I wouldn't have thought you would ask me that."
He almost looked insulted. "Fine. What do you want me to do?"
"Distract the guards," Iris suggested. "Nergal has a lot, I'm sure."
The closer they got to the building, the more easy Caw seemed to feel. Only two guards were posted at the entrance, and it wasn't locked, only blocked by a round, armored being. An armadillo companion, as Iris knew. Ani had shown her a few rainforest animals.
"You distract them and I go in and talk to Nergal," she repeated. It was a simple plan, just like with the Crows back in the day. Sometimes the simplest ideas were the best.
Caw hesitated. "I'd rather have it the other way around."
She blinked, confused. "You know Nergal less than I do."
"True, but I'm not good at distractions. I'm better at sneaking."
Iris looked at the guards again. Both were tall, but they had more fat than muscle. Iris was definitely faster than them. "Okay, I'll do it. Do we meet at the branch?"
"At the branch, of course. Good luck." Then he began to approach the prison entrance until he stood motionless and looked nervously, but expectantly, in her direction.
She took a deep breath. Let's go.
Caw's position was to the right of the guards, so Iris went left. She kept her eyes open for something to distract the guards, and quickly found what she was looking for: a bit of a piece of fruit that somebody had left lying nearby. It was just the right size for her plan.
Her idea wasn't new. She'd done what she would do now countless of times, back at the Claws. With the Crows - with Autolycus. Autolycus...
Not now, she scolded herself and pushed the thought away. Today her attention was on Caw.
She took the fruit in her hand and checked its weight. Then she watched the guards: throwing it the two was too risky. But the armadillo...
The fruit hit the animal on the flank without making any noise. But the armadillo had noticed the impact and turned, more confused than alarmed, in Iris's direction. Come on, she mouthed, and indeed, it came to her.
"What's there, Avocado?", one of the men asked, following it, sounding more curious than like a proper guard.
"You're making me hungry," said the other man, who was also moving away from the entrance. "Really, Vindun, did you have to name your companion after my favorite fruit?"
"Avocado came before you, little brother."
Iris suppressed a giggle, then sneaked away cautiously, leaving the brothers to their banter before she was discovered after all.
"You took some time." Iris had certainly waited an hour for Caw - at least it felt like it.
"Hey, I had to find a way back out, that took a while." There was something unusual in his voice ... was it fear? Concern?
What had Nergal told him?
"Did you talk to him?", she urged. "Did something happen?"
Caw nodded uncomfortably. "Damara seems to be really angry. Nergal says he had listened to everything. She apparently didn't make a big secret out of wanting to solve the conflict between the two tribes once and for all."
"With war?", Iris suggested, even if she didn't hope for it. This was exactly what they had had to deal with before...
"Exactly. She wants to leave as soon as she can." There was a brief silence. "Do you believe him?"
She hesitated. After all, she had never liked Nergal all that much. "I don't know," she admitted. "But that doesn't matter. I believe you."
"Thank you... you know what that means to me. What are you going to do now? Warn Gerra?"
"Why should I?" But then she thought about it. The chief, and his son, had wanted to kill her, that was true. And Nergal had killed someone. On the other hand, she knew exactly what Geb would do now. He wasn't interested in the fact that the war wouldn't directly affect him. What mattered to him was the safety of Elmen that would enter the battle.
Geb would hurry to the Fire Tribe and warn them.
"You're right," she finally decided. "We have to warn Gerra as soon as possible. Ensure that the troops are able to meet halfway and resolve the matter peacefully."
"I don't know if the Fire Tribe would be willing to do that." Still, Caw looked at her resolutely. "But it's worth a try. I'm coming with you."
Iris rummaged in her pocket and pulled out paper, quill, and ink. "We can't waste any time," she said while she was writing. "The others just slow us down. So I'll leave them a message."
"Good idea." Caw straightened. "Midnight and I wait above the trees. Come up when you're ready."
"Okay." As soon as she was done, Iris packed her things together and crept back to the now no longer empty Impure hut. To wake up the others would only slow them down - so she put her message close to the snoring Geb, woke Shimmer who was asleep near Boulder outside, and rose through a narrow gap in the canopy into the night sky.
The time with Caw did her well, Iris felt. She learned to adapt to his rhythm: the two flew between evening and morning and slept in the day. They came along well, much faster than if their friends had accompanied them. And finally, finally, she could share her eating habits with someone again.
"You could easily forget what we're here for," she said as they took shelter from a rainstorm in a forest and chewed a few beetles that did the same. She remembered this place, they had already passed here with Nergal. She shivered slightly, but she didn't mind. "It feels good to just be out here. With you."
"It could always be like this when this is all over," Caw replied, gently pressing her to himself. "Just you and me. Forever."
"Sounds good." In fact, she had never thought about what she would do after finding the Hero of Light. Should she go back to the Claws? To the Crows? Or to Zephyr?
Caw loosened himself from the embrace and put a hand on hers. "I'm glad you're here, Iris. With you I feel... accepted."
"I feel the same." She looked into his unfathomable pitch-black eyes that were still so full of warmth. "You're the only one who doesn't get frustrated with my choices."
"Why should I?", he asked. "You're full of great ideas, Iris. What you do is what you think is right, and nobody should complain about it." He leaned closer to her until she felt his gentle breath again. "On the contrary. It's remarkable."
Iris felt her heart race. She had never come so close to anyone before. She, too, leaned towards him, ready for... yes, her first real kiss. This realization surprised her, so quickly did the last days seem to have passed. And still it had taken much too long, she thought. That now, at last, the moment had come...
Wingbeats tore her from her thoughts and made her freeze. She knew this sound, exactly this one. She had for years.
Without letting go of Caw, she dared to turn her head. And there she saw, standing before her, whom she would have expected the least out of all the people on Elysia.
|Forest of Flames Chapters|
|One: Fire||1: Into the Unknown • 2: The Gift • 3: Travel by Snake • 4: Scorch Lines • 5: Wars to Be Won • 6: Impure Business • 7: Dark Fire|
|Two: Forest||8: Smoke and Feathers • 9: Midnight • 10: Heart of the Forest • 11: The Ones We Love • 12: Shadow Dance • 13: Makeshift Solution • 14: A New Beginning • 15: Eye of the Storm • 16: Traitors • 17: The Return • 18: Wildfire Hill|
|Three: Water||19: Answers • 20: Ancamna Falls • 21: Against the Flow • 22: Starry Night|